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Kevin Bayona: Is the red menace back?

Posted: March 7, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: March 7, 2013 2:00 a.m.

We don’t hear much from Russia these days, but rest assured the Russian Federation is on the move across Eurasia and the world as its pugnacious leader, Vladimir Putin, vies to return Russia to the glory days of the Soviet Union.

Mr. Putin is well into his third non-consecutive term after dislodging former President Dmitry Medvedev, and his autocratic tendencies are in full swing. Americans should prepare themselves for a return to the days when the red menace lurked around every corner.

President Putin first took the reins at the Kremlin in 2000 until 2008, at which point his hand-picked successor, Medvedev, was elected president (or should I say "place-holder") until 2012, when Putin would again be eligible to run for another term as president.

Sadly for millions of Russians, Mr. Putin has slowly been undoing many of Medvedev’s reforms while simultaneously isolating the former president.

Many analysts predict Putin will eventually dump Mr. Medvedev (who currently serves as prime minister) and replace him with newly appointed defense minister Sergey Shoigu.

Putin’s popularity has been falling slowly but steadily, and analysts believe he hopes to curb his falling approval ratings by divorcing himself from Medvedev and other like-minded social, economic and political reformers within the Kremlin.

When Putin reclaimed the presidency last year he once again made slander a crime in Russia and returned the power to appoint local governors back to the Kremlin.

Mr. Putin also slighted Medvedev by choosing the head of Russia’s ruling party, United Russia, instead of letting Mr. Medvedev do it, which is one of his duties as prime minister.

Pro-Putin state-run media have also been carrying negative stories about the prime minister. Clearly Putin resented Medvedev’s independence while he was president and his continued recalcitrance as prime minister.

Mr. Medvedev has identified with the virtues of liberty and freedom in various public speeches and has also shown some sympathy toward many of Putin’s critics.

Mr. Putin probably blames Medvedev for the anti-Putin movement that has plagued him since reclaiming the presidency.

Mr. Putin faces many difficult domestic issues he will have to combat over the coming years, which may be more challenging if his popularity continues to fall amid the backdrop of a liberal/reformist wing of Russia’s leadership.

Russians have become angry over massive increases in fees for housing and public utilities which have risen up to 250 percent overnight in some parts of the country.

The dreary economic picture in Russia has sparked protests across the country as Russia’s younger citizens with almost no personal memory of its Soviet past begin to demand greater social, political and economic liberty.

Although Mr. Putin has much to deal with at home, he hasn’t let internal political encumbrances take his eye off the geopolitical ball. Putin has been focusing on domestic issues as of late, but he and his government continue to explore Russia’s political and security future.

Last December, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a meeting at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe that Russia was attempting to "re-Sovietize" Eastern Europe and Central Asia, referring to Russia’s plan to create a "Eurasian Union" by 2015.

The Russians quickly dismissed her statement and contend that any union would only be about economic integration. But I think any amateur student of international relations could tell you that Russia clearly aims to control its former Soviet periphery and similarly reduce the influence of any foreign powers, particularly the United States.

Russia’s Eurasian Union isn’t all the United States has to worry about — Mr. Putin has become very comfortable flying high-level nuclear bombers near the edges of American territory, as it did last month near Guam when American fighter jets were dispatched to intercept the bombers.

Mr. Putin has also deployed Russian nuclear submarines on patrol around the world, but particularly in the Atlantic where last November a Russian attack submarine was detected only 275 miles off the southeastern coast of the United States.

One U.S. Navy official said the Russians are simply "doing what the U.S. does — patrolling and conducting exercises."

If all this weren’t enough, last month the Russian military carried out the largest nuclear drill in 20 years, which tested the transport of both strategic and tactical nuclear weapons near Europe.

The Pentagon was taken by surprise and became alarmed, but officials there understand that like the United States, Russia too, conducts nuclear exercises.

The Pentagon’s biggest fear is that nuclear weapons may become lost and fall into the hands of terrorists or other nefarious elements.

I don’t know about you, but I think a re-emerging Soviet Empire may complicate an already menacing world that will not easily accommodate a bipolar cold war as it did in the 20th century.

Then again, who saw it coming the first time around?
Kevin Bayona is a Valencia resident. He earned a BA in international relations and political science from Fairfield University, studied global affairs at New York University, and is a member of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council.



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